Jewish American titan from the ghetto

The JC essay

By Christopher Hitchens, December 30, 2011

Look first upon this picture, and on this… the two photographs of Saul Bellow that adorn the initial covers of the Library of America edition of his collected works.

In the first, we see a somewhat rakish fellow, sharply dressed and evidently fizzing with moxie, who meets the world with a cool and level gaze that belies the slight impression of a pool shark or racetrack con artist.

In the second, and in profile, we get a survey of a sage in a more reflective pose; but this is a sage who still might utter a well-chosen wisecrack out of the side of his mouth.

The antique history of the shtetl and the ghetto is inscribed in both studies of the man, but some considerable physical and mental distance has evidently been travelled in each case.

At Bellow's memorial meeting, held in the Young Men's Hebrew Association at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street in 2005, the main speakers were Ian Mc
Ewan, Jeffrey Eugenides, Martin Amis, William Kennedy and James Wood.

What use was war without also love? Yiddishism or no Yiddishism, this must count as one of the most affirmative and masculine sentences ever set down

Had it not been for an especially vapid speech by some forgettable rabbi, the platform would have been exclusively composed of non-Jews, many of them non-American.

How had Bellow managed to exert such an effect on writers almost half his age, from another tradition and another continent? Putting this question to the speakers later on, I received two particularly memorable responses. Ian McEwan related his impression that Bellow, alone among American writers of his generation, had seemed to assimilate the whole European classical inheritance. And Martin Amis vividly remembered something Bellow had once said to him, which is that, if you are born in the ghetto, the very conditions compel you to look skywards, and thus to hunger for the universal.

In The Victim, the Jewish son of an anti-gentile and ghetto-mentality storekeeper is being given a hard time by an insecure and alcoholic WASP. "I'm a fine one to be talking about tradition, you must be saying," admits the latter:

"But still I was born into it. And try to imagine how New York affects me. Isn't it preposterous? It's really as if the children of Caliban were running everything. You go down in the subway and Caliban gives you two nickels for your dime. You go home and he has a candy store in the street where you were born. The old breeds are out. The streets are named after them. But what are they themselves? Just remnants.

"I see how it is; you're actually an aristocrat," said Leventhal.

"It may not strike you as it struck me," said Allbee. "But I go into the library once in while, to look around, and last week I saw a book about Thoreau and Emerson by a man named Lipschitz…"

"What of it?"

"A name like that?" Allbee said this with great earnestness. "After all, it seems to me that people of such background simply couldn't understand…"

Remember that when Bellow was growing up, Lionel Trilling could be sacked from a teaching post at Columbia on the grounds that a Jew could not really appreciate English literature.

Recall also the exquisite pain with which Henry James, in The American Scene in 1907, had registered "the whole hard glitter of Israel" on New York's Lower East Side, and especially the way in which Yiddish-speaking authors operated the "torture-rooms of the living idiom."

Bellow in his time was to translate Isaac Bashevis Singer into English (and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock into Yiddish), but it mattered to him that the ghetto be transcended and that he, too, could sing America.

The various means of this assertion included pyrotechnic versatility with English, a ferocious assimilation of learning, and an emphasis on the man of action as well as the man of reflection.

When I think of Bellow, I think not just of a man whose genius for the vernacular could seem to restate American philosophy as if run through a Damon Runyon synthesiser, but of the author who came up with such graphic expressions for vulgarity and thuggery and stupidity - the debased currency of those too brutalised to have retained the capacity for wonder. In The Adventures of Augie March, "A goon's rodeo" is Augie's description of a saturnalia of the mindless. "Moral buggery" is the crisp summary of New York values in Dangling Man.

Yet Bellow by no means dismisses the Hemingway style. Several of his heroes and protagonists rise above the sickly and the merely bookish. They tackle lions and, in the case of Augie March, a truly fearsome eagle. They mix it up with revolutionaries and bandits and hard-core criminals.

Erich Fromm once gave a course at the New School on "the struggle against pointlessness", and one wonders whether Bellow heard of, or took, this class.

Pervasive in his work is a sense of the awful trap posed by aimlessness and its cousins, impotence and the death wish. In Dangling Man, the narrator hears of a college friend's death in the war and diagnoses it as an indirect act of will:

I always suspected of him that he had in some fashion discovered there were some ways in which to be human was to be unutterably dismal, and that all his life was given over to avoiding those ways.

Whereas, in The Adventures of Augie March, the hero signs up for the same combat and, reflecting on what it does for his sex life, asks, "What use was war without also love?" Yiddishism or no Yiddishism, this must count as one of the most affirmative and masculine sentences ever set down.

Against pointlessness and futility, Bellow strove to counterpoise what Augie calls "the universal eligibility to be noble" - the battle to overcome not just ghetto conditions but ghetto psychoses. Such yearning ambition, as Bellow knew, can be a torment to those who are not innately noble to begin with.

Perhaps the best illustration of nobility that Bellow offers is Augie March's brief glimpse of Trotsky in Mexico, from which he receives a strong impression of "deepwater greatness" and an ability to steer by the brightest stars.

Bellow himself had arrived in Mexico in 1940, just too late to see Trotsky, who had been murdered by a hireling assassin the morning they were meant to meet. Like the eponymous hero of Bellow's Henderson the Rain King, Trotsky was a man upon whom life had "decided to use strong measures."

The founder of the Red Army was also the author of Literature and Revolution and a co-author of Manifesto for an Independent Revolutionary Art. In his own person he united the Jew, the cosmopolitan, the man of ideas and the man of action. And the speed with which Bellow learned from the experience of Trotsky's murder is a theme in several of his fictions.

Bellow's life as a public intellectual is sometimes held to have followed a familiar arc or trajectory: that from quasi-Trotskyist to full-blown "neo-con", and of course it is true that the earlier novels contain portraits of members of the Partisan Review group, from Delmore Schwartz to Dwight Macdonald, whereas the final novel, Ravelstein, features an affectionate portrayal of Allan Bloom (whose Closing of the American Mind Bellow had helped make into a best-seller), and even of Paul Wolfowitz during the intra-Washington struggle over the Gulf War, in 1991.

Of the single occasion when I met Bellow properly, Martin Amis has given a brilliantly scandalised account in his memoir, Experience.

Actually, the evening wasn't as rough as all that. An amused Bellow recalled having been denied a job at Time magazine by no less a person than Whittaker Chambers and wondered aloud what his writing life would have been like if he had secured that safe billet at Time.

So all was going fairly smoothly, except that on the reading table, like a revolver in a Chekhov play, there lay a loaded copy of Commentary. It soon became apparent that Bellow really had moved to the right, without losing his taste for talmudic and trotskisant dialectic, and that in his mind there was a strong connection between the decay of American cities and campuses, and wider questions of ideological promiscuity.

I do not think I am wrong in guessing that he regarded the battle in the Middle East as something of an allegory of the distraught state of black-white (and black-Jewish) relations in his beloved Chicago. Anyone who has read his non-fiction work, To Jerusalem and Back, will be compelled to notice that the Arab inhabitants of the holy city are as nearly invisible and alien as their equivalents in Oran in Camus's La Peste. At any event, we ended up having a strong disagreement about the Palestinians in general, and the work of Edward Said in particular. I have several times devoutly wished that we could have had this discussion again.

The thread in the labyrinth of Bellow's politics has undoubtedly something to do with the "ghetto" also, and with a certain awkward possessiveness about the employment of that same pejorative.

In a revealing moment in Ravelstein, the hero objects to the commonplace use of the term as customarily applied to black American life:

"Ghetto nothing!" Ravelstein said. "Ghetto Jews had highly developed feelings, civilized nerves - thousands of years of training. They had communities and laws. 'Ghetto' is an ignorant newspaper term. It's not a ghetto that they come from, it's a noisy pointless, nihilistic turmoil."

So, perhaps paradoxically, Bellow echoes a defensive and even admiring attitude to the very place from which he wished to escape. This is almost conservatism defined. In The Dean's December, black crime and big-city corruption have become hard to distinguish in Bellow's mind; he was later to manifest alarm and disgust when a black demagogue in Chicago accused Jewish doctors of spreading the AIDS virus.

I don't want to make any insinuation here, but it's clear that Bellow had concluded that one of the fondest hopes of the democratic left - that of a black-Jewish alliance - had become a thing of the past.

However, he never quite succumbed to the affectless cynicism that he always despised. His famously provocative 1988 question, "Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans?" - asked in the context of a defence of Bloom, seemed to many people to contradict the generosity of what he had offered about Africa in Henderson, and evidently must have struck Bellow in the same light, since six years later he wrote a much-less-noticed essay in praise of the novel of Zululand, Chaka, by Thomas Mofolo.

Life and politics might have had souring results, and so might personal experience, but to the end, he put his money on the life-affirming and on the will to live, and he could never quite abandon his faith in that crucial eligibility to be noble.

The journalist Christopher Hitchens, who died last week at the age of 62, discovered in his late 30s that he was halachically Jewish. He said that this discovery "thrilled" him. The above is extracted from a piece Hitchens wrote for 'The Atlantic' in November 2007. The full essay is republished in the latest collection, 'Arguably', by Atlantic Books. Among the many awards gained by the Canadian-born, Jewish American novelist, Saul Bellow (1915-2005), was the Nobel Prize for literature in 1976

Last updated: 2:26pm, December 30 2011